HC Deb 13 June 1956 vol 554 cc723-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I want to raise two aspects of the inshore fishing industry. From time to time, hon. Members have sought the opportunity to place in front of the House the difficulties of the industry and at the same time to express to the House the vital importance of the industry to our economic life and to the defence of this land. Hon. Members are well aware of the importance of the industry, not only in regard to our defence when we are in danger, but also in relation to the part that it plays in manning our lifeboat service and in this way often performing very great deeds of valour.

The first of the two aspects that I wish to raise is the pilchard industry, which is peculiar to Cornwall and part of Devon. It is concerned with the netting of pilchards. The alternative to that is long-lining, to which I shall refer in relation to dog-fish.

Lately the pilchard industry has been going through some very great difficulties. On Saturday, it was decided that the price, which had been arranged between the canners and some of the fishermen, should be reduced by 1s. per stone, from 4s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. This is in itself a very hard, harsh blow to the fishermen.

With other hon. Members, I spoke last December when the subsidy was announced. In reply to my speech, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated that he would take into consideration for the next announcement with regard to subsidies the relevant factors relating to the costs of the inshore fishermen before he made his statement, which the industry is expecting in the forthcoming weeks.

The figures which the Minister is likely to have received between that time and now will have been based primarily on the price of 4s. 6d. per stone. Consequently, the reduction of 1 s. will play a very important part in the matter. I sincerely trust that, before an announcement is made about the subsidy, this will be taken fully into account.

I assume that the Minister is aware of the additional costs that the fishermen have to bear at present. For example, in the part of the industry to which I am referring, the value of nets per vessel alone is about £1,000. That means that £1,000 worth of equipment is carried in a ship with a crew of five men, including the skipper—and that £1,000 is, from a practical point of view, uninsurable. Again, the expense of insuring the hull is very considerable. At the moment, the owners of the majority of the vessels to which I am referring will insure only two-thirds of the hull, which can be done at a fairly reasonable price, but if they had to insure the additional one-third they would have to pay almost as much as they have already paid for the two-thirds. That puts a check upon any desire on the part of owners to have new vessels. Under the grant and loan scheme, quite naturally and properly the Government demand full insurance of the hull, which means that the full payment of one-third plus two-thirds has to be made.

Again, the modern inshore fishing vessel has to be equipped with an echo meter, the cost of maintenance of which, quite apart from its original cost, is £40 per annum. Maintenance costs in relation to the engine, paint, and everything else have also risen very steeply, and the capital required for each vessel is extremely high.

The argument put forward for reducing the price from 4s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. a stone was that there was some fear about the importation of South African pilchards for the year 1956. I want to make it quite clear to the Minister that the trouble was not in connection with the import figure for 1954, or for 1955, but in relation to the fear about the figure for 1956. If he is unaware what that figure may be, I hope that he will look into the matter and take it into account at the same time.

In their agreements with the pilchard fishermen, the canners have stated quite fairly that they are prepared, in their turn, to submit their accounts to the White Fish Authority should that please either the fishermen or Her Majesty's Government. The Minister is also aware that on Monday there was a strike—even though is was of very short duration—at Looe and Porthleven. Most of us will be glad that some form of provisional agreement was reached yesterday in order that vessels could still go to sea and, at the same time, canners would receive the fish which is so necessary to our economic life.

Be that as it may, although a provisional and temporary agreement has been reached, that does not make the position any the less anxious for the fishermen, because the result is a very low living wage in the inshore fleet. I would therefore ask the Minister to consider two points. In the last subsidy which came before the House, provided by Statutory Instrument No. 1937 of 1955, the Minister will no doubt have observed the categories of fish to which the subsidy applied. I will not trouble the House by reading them out, but in the middle of one of them there is the name "pilchards". If, as a result of his investigations, the Minister finds that the actual standard of life of that section of the inshore fishing fleet is below that of the others, I hope that he will give consideration to the necessity of providing a special subsidy in respect of the pilchard fleet. Will he also look into the practice of the Inland Revenue with regard to protective clothing? My information is that it is the practice of the Revenue to allow £30 a year for protective clothing in the deep sea fleets and £10 a year in the inshore fishing fleets.

Hon. Members will be fully aware that the difference between the inshore fishing fleets and the deep-sea fishing fleets is that, by definition, the vessels of the former do not stay at sea longer than 36 hours. That does not of necessity mean that a deep-sea vessel is more at sea during the year than an inshore vessel. Consequently, I cannot see why there should be any difference in the Inland Revenue allowance.

The third point, which is a matter peculiar to the pilchard industry, is the question of those pilchards which go north up to Lowestoft and elsewhere. As, unfortunately, there is no bridge over the Tamar—I know this is no concern of the Minister, but I hope that he will do all in his power to have a bridge provided—there is no priority for the fish across the ferry. This happens to be an important matter, because, although there is an alternative route, that route is so precipitous that it is impossible—a word I hate using in this House—for the type of lorries employed in carrying the fish to use it. There is actual physical danger if they do. Consequently, if there is delay on the ferry route perishable articles like fish deteriorate very quickly.

Another point I wish to raise is that if our inshore fishermen cannot make a sufficient livelihood from pilchards it may be that they will have to turn to long-lining. In long-lining there is the matter of catching dog-fish. In order that I may put the matter on record and so that the Minister may be fully aware of the position, I want to put the following point to him.

In long-lining one has to be at sea, whether one likes it or not, for sometimes more than 36 hours. Unfortunately, the average age of our inshore fishermen today is round about 57. That means that a considerable number of them far exceed that age. It is pretty tough to be in a very small vessel at sea without sleep for 36 hours with long lines which contain some 5,000 to 6,000 hooks and somewhere in the region of seven miles of gear. It is extremely tough for any man around that age. I should like the Minister to be fully aware of that fact.

In March, 1946, I first raised in the House the question of dog-fish and the name that should attach to dog-fish. I have sought opportunities, either by interviews with Ministers, or, at the same time, by Questions or in debate, to raise this subject again and again. I must admit that over the course of these ten or eleven years I have not had much success in the matter. Consequently, I want to raise the point again tonight.

Some hon. Members will be aware that although people are apt just to refer to dog-fish, there are, in fact, three quite distinct varieties of dog-fish. One variety is the spur dog-fish, which has a grey hull and a white belly and is known from John O'Groats to Land's End as rock salmon, and sometimes by other names. It so happens that a short while ago the Daily Express ran a competition on the matter, and I was flooded with postcards giving most strange and odd names which should apply to this very sweet and very nutritious fish.

The other form of dog-fish which may possibly be more well known by those who spend their holidays at the sea is the sandy dog-fish. That has been known at different times as the nurse-hound, which is of a brownish colour with red spots on it. It is used in parts of the east coast and elsewhere, for frying. It is sometimes eaten in the ordinary way; it is quite a good fish to eat, but it is not up to the standard of the spur dog-fish. Then there is the mellar dog, which does not look unlike the sandy dog-fish but is quite a different article. His spots are different in colour and he smells like a polecat. The quickest thing to do with him is to put him over the side or use him as bait in the lobster or crab pots.

The present position is rather strange. Up and down the countryside, it appears in order and quite correct to sell spur dog-fish as rock salmon or by some other name, and it is perfectly correct for the sandy dog-fish to sell by the name of nursehound. But the difficulty I have been trying to overcome is with the canning of spur dog-fish. In my view, there is a goodish market for this. The Middle East market, for example, might well take a considerable amount of our canned rock salmon. But there is something in a name, and "dog-fish "does not sound half as good as rock salmon, although it may be the same fish.

The reason I have raised this matter tonight is that, as I have said, I have been trying to get this point over for about ten years. I have received letters from the Ministry of Food telling me what I knew already—that different names are given to different dog-fish in different areas. I received another letter saying how surprised the Ministry were to find that I wanted the name of rock salmon used for spur dog-fish, as they thought that I wanted the name dog-fish not to be altered under any consideration. I thought that was a reasonable moment to ask for an Adjournment debate, having wanted the reverse for ten years.

These matters are not only of considerable importance to that part of the fishing industry which has played a great part in all our lives during war. and which is something rather lovely in our lives and in our way of life; it matters also to the consumer, because consumers in this country can afford to eat more fish than they are eating. Lastly, it is important for our export trade, because if we can find a method of increasing our export trade to the benefit of our light industries and to the benefit of our fishermen, then it is something of benefit to the nation as a whole.

The hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard), Cornwall, North (Sir H. Roper), and Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) have taken a very great interest in the inshore fishing industry. I sincerely trust that these matters which I have put in front of the Minister will receive his consideration. I do not expect him tonight suddenly to be able to answer me off the cuff, as it were, on a number of these matters, but I do expect him to take them into consideration and not to give me the reply which I have received unfortunately over these years from the Ministry—that it is a matter for investigation by a committee. There is a limit of time for any committee to sit.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

Before the Minister replies, may I say that, as a Cornishman, I support all that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) said? I remind the Minister that the old chief industries of Cornwall were fish, copper and tin. Copper has long since gone and tin just survives, but if we are not careful fish will go, too. I believe I am correct in saying that the canners are offering to east Cornwall fishermen a price 30 per cent. below that which they have been receiving and that for which they have asked. It is vital that the fishing industry should be looked after, and I hope the Minister will do what he can about it.

10.51 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)

I want my first words to be words of congratulation of my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) for the interesting way in which he has presented the case tonight. I congratulate him on covering such a very wide front in 20 minutes. His interest on behalf of the fishermen of Cornwall over many years is on the record. If I may say so, his attitude has been consistent and he has shown a tenacity in pursuing his argument, particularly that which he has advanced tonight, which calls for the admiration of us all.

Let me assure him at once that we do not forget the great war record of the inshore fishermen, nor do we overlook the great part which they play in the lifeboat service. This is a contribution to our national well-being which, I think, is recognised by all sides of the House. There need be no feeling that the great contribution which they have made and are making in that direction is in any way minimised in my Department, whatever may have been contained in the letters to which my hon. Friend has made oblique reference.

He has reminded us that since the war we have had a growing pilchard-canning industry, that that industry depends on the Cornish fishermen for its supplies and that, to cover this, purchasing arrangements extending over the season have been made between the canneries and the fishermen. As he rightly says, that arrangement has resulted in a worthwhile industry. I should like to acknowledge the great part which my hon. Friend has played in bringing about that development, which brings satisfaction to all parts of Cornwall.

Events in connection with that development had been going satisfactorily until the other day, when several canners found themselves obliged to reduce the price which they felt able to pay to the fishermen because, on the one hand, of the rising costs which the canners have to meet and, on the other hand, as my hon. Friend said, of the fears which they have of competition from imported supplies.

It looked the other day as though this decision by the canners would carry some risk of local disruption, but I understand that yesterday afternoon the Looe and Porthleven fishermen expressed themselves as being prepared, under the prevailing conditions, to agree with the four canneries concerned to accept the cannery price of 3s. 6d. per stone for their pilchards instead of the 4s. 6d. which was paid previously for a short time. This was on the understanding that the canners would allow the White Fish Authority to carry out investigations into the costs of pilchard canning.

I think this is important, because their willingness to put their books at the disposal of the fishermen through the White Fish Authority conveys the impression to me that they have nothing to hide. Although, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) said, the difference in price is important, it looks as though the reasons which have been advanced for the reduction are proper reasons from their point of view.

Hon. Members will be interested to know that if an average price of 3s. 6d. per stone is earned by the fishermen they will have improved on their average gross earnings of last year. That assumes that the size of the catch is maintained. Even at a price of 3s. 6d., if they have the same catch as last year their average gross earnings will be more than those of last year.

My hon. Friend rightly placed great stress upon the increased costs and the costs generally which have to be faced in this industry, and I want to tell him that I recognise the great difference between gross earnings and net earnings. We are not unaware of that. While I note the extra costs which my hon. Friend has described, I think he will agree that the settlement which has been arrived at has been rightly arrived at by the industry and it is not a matter in which any Ministry should intervene. In the long run, that is the best approach. It is gratifying that both sides are prepared to give and take in concluding at least a provisional agreement which will keep the fishermen at sea and will allow the canners to continue to produce this valuable food.

I appreciate that this does not deal with the point made by my hon. Friend regarding the special subsidy. I have made a note of that. His suggestion is a novel one, and I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend. My hon. Friend suggested, I understand, a kind of regional subsidy, because it is only from Cornwall that we get the pilchards. While this new idea will be looked at, it would be wrong to give the impression that I can hold out any great hopes of its being accepted. On the face of it, I see many difficulties, but I will see that my right hon. Friend gives the suggestion his attention. In any event, the price of 3s. 6d. is an advance on the average of 3s. 2d. which was realised last year. This can only be a matter of pleasure to everyone concerned in the industry.

I recognise the fears described by my hon. Friend on the important question of imports. It is true that imports from South Africa increased from 80,000 cwt. in 1954 to 173,000 cwt. in 1955, but there is no evidence whatever that the increased imports and home production together exceed the demand. There is no question of the market having been flooded. I have noted my hon. Friend's fears for the future. It is a point of concern which we will examine and keep in mind. It is not only a matter for the Ministry but one on which the people in the industry must make their own judgment.

My hon. Friend has shown great interest in the question of dog-fish for many years. In a word, his argument is that this is a fish which deserves a better name. I accept at once that it is a good, wholesome food, but the trouble is that it is popular only in certain districts. In these districts it is sold by retail under several names, and as far as I am aware the use of those names has caused no difficulties in the areas where they are understood. People know that the fish is good and worth eating. Whatever the name on the label, they have the fish and they enjoy eating it.

The standardisation of a retail name throughout the country is another question and one on which we have had representations from local authorities and the White Fish Authority. The representations from those quarters are being considered. Whatever the results, we will certainly keep in mind the point of view which my hon. Friend has pressed consistently for 11 years in this House. I am sure that the House would not expect me to say more on that side of the argument since the matter is, in fact, under consideration.

Canned dog-fish is a new product to me. I am told that no dog-fish has been imported for many years, nor has any been canned in this country. So far as such a product is concerned, a prospective canner is not restricted in the choice of a description for his product provided the description he eventually adopts and the label he uses to get it over are in conformity with the Food and Drugs Act and the Merchandise Marks Act. If he does that, if the description of the goods on the label is not false or calculated to mislead anybody, there is nothing to stop a prospective canner going ahead and eventually having his product tested. I do not think I can give any definite promise to anybody that any name which is chosen is one which will pass the test of the court. That will have to be tested in the court before any assurance can be given.

I have noted the point which my hon. Friend has made about the difference in the Inland Revenue allowance, and this again I will bring to the notice of my right hon. Friend.

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend for making interesting a subject which, from its title "dog-fish", did not seem to be at all attractive.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.